There were a few names that kept cropping up during the research stage ahead of launching She can. She did. last summer and thirty year old Genevieve Sweeney’s was one of them.
Having learnt to knit at the age of five; had her designs sold to the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie and Fitch and H&M as a student; and worked around the world holding senior positions for her age at Hugo Boss, Burberry and rag & bone; it’s no surprise that Genevieve decided to launch her own premium knitwear brand in 2015.
But what a brand Genevieve Sweeney has become.
Earning herself the title of Draper’s ‘30 under 30’ earlier this year, if I didn’t admit to sitting in wonder throughout the entirety of this interview, then you’d have every right to say that I was telling porkies…
Starting firstly with what her brand is all about in her own words, on a sunny spring morning a few weeks back, I got to the bottom of the exceptional story that she’s been on thus far.
GS. So Genevieve Sweeney is a British knitwear label that makes contemporary and unique pieces that completely supports British manufacturing. We work with cottage industries, family-run businesses and small factories so everything – apart from some of the Italian yarns that we use – is made in the UK.
I feel like there are two purposes to the business. Obviously the fashion side where we’re focused on making effortless and timeless seasonal pieces that make you feel amazing but we’re also focused on the social and ethical side where we care about making sustainable products. That’s really important to me!
Sparked by the observation that Genevieve’s team are aged between their late fifties to eighties, with one team member already semi-retired; Genevieve is also focused on building an apprenticeship scheme for the next generation.
GS. It feels amazing that I’ve been able to reemploy people and get them back into the industry but soon they’re going to want to retire properly! There’s a huge generation gap for people who can make these garments. That’s been a scary realisation in the past year so I’m also building an apprenticeship plan!
SC.SD. See my Mum tried to teach me how to knit when I was about eighteen once and we ended up in a huge argument because I was so useless!
GS. Do it with a glass of wine – that’s how I teach my friends! My sister’s the same though, I tried to teach her to crochet once and she just kept making it up! There’s definitely a resurgence in hand knitting but there’s a massive gap on the manufacturing side.
SC.SD. Let’s go back to the beginning then…. Did you always know that you’d end up in knitwear and want your own business and if so, how did it all start?
GS. So I’ve been knitting since I was five! My Dad’s work took me across Europe so I didn’t go to school that often and so my Nan taught me to knit to keep me entertained! Because they were such long journeys, I’d knit something, unwind it and knit the same thing again and it became a slight addiction. My sister was allowed to draw on the windows too and she’s now an artist!
SC.SD. Oh my gosh!
GS. I know! It definitely paved our way for what we’re doing now! It was just him and us so if he had to go away, we did too.
When she was eight, Genevieve returned to the UK, went back to school and was raised by her grandparents who were, in their own right, also incredibly creative.
GS. My Nan was a seamstress and my Grandad was a joiner and because we didn’t have much money I’d always make my own clothes. I carried on knitting in secret too because you’d get taken the mick out of at school if you knit! Anyway, when I was sixteen I met a girl who was in her second year of what I went on to study at Nottingham Trent and I just thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is it! This is my life’ so that set my path!
Having graduated in 2011 with a First Class degree in Fashion Knitwear from Nottingham Trent, Genevieve credits her course for arming her with the confidence and technical skills that have helped her in the early stages of her career thus far.
GS. They find it quite hard to recruit people, I thought it’d be the opposite at the time, so I applied for the textiles degree but in my interview they said, “do you want to do fashion knitwear instead?” and I was like, “erm… YES” so that was that!
It’s such an incredible degree because you learn how to use the machines as well as the design aspect so I feel as a designer you’re therefore much stronger because you know how everything’s made. When you’re drawing it, you’re considering how it goes on the machine and how the fibres will react.
I think a lot of people that go through those courses think design is the end goal when actually there are so many other elements that go into the production stage that can actually be incredibly creative!
In her placement year, Genevieve worked for a design consultancy where she spent her days knitting and designing mock ups for big labels. Within three months, her creations were sold on a global scale, to the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie and Fitch and H&M…
GS. That experience taught me what buyers were interested in but it also helped me to realise that my menswear was strongest.
Opting to focus on menswear for the remainder of her degree therefore, Genevieve continued to work for the agency in her final year at uni in order to help pay her tuition fees. It was at this time that she also interned with a number of high street stores to experience the “completely different” world of fast fashion.
GS. When I left university I didn’t know what direction to go in. I knew I wanted to create my own brand but I was talked into doing ‘Pure Tradeshow’ in London where I met some designers and they made me think, ‘I need to go out into the industry and learn what to do first.’
In the summer after graduating, Genevieve entered a university competition to design a collection for WGSN – the trend forecasting company – in which the winner was flown out to Shanghai to showcase their designs at the renowned Yarn Expo.
GS. Luckily I won it so I went out there for a week and ended up meeting everyone I ended up working for in the future! My CV was never exchanged but I met Burberry, Hugo Boss and someone who supplied knitwear to rag & bone. He was like, “I know there’s a menswear position going” so I literally called them up that day and asked to come for an interview. We arranged to Skype but they cancelled so I called back and said, “how about I jump on a flight?”, they said, “yes”, so I went out to America a few weeks later…
SC.SD. Hang on! You flew to America for a job interview?!
GS. Yeh…! Because I hadn’t been to America before, I was worried I wouldn’t like it so thought it’d be a good way to see it first! Anyway, I finally got the job in the March after I graduated as a design assistant and that was the start of my working career.
Having met her now-husband a month before leaving for New York however, despite loving life in New York and her job at rag & bone, Genevieve was open to other career opportunities if it meant not having to juggle a long-distance relationship…
GS. After about four months of me being there, Hugo Boss called me up and offered me the opportunity to join their creative team in Switzerland without an interview so then I had to weigh up my career path in New York. Ultimately the Hugo Boss role ticked all of my boxes in terms of how to run a collection, how to run a business and helped me on the path to setting up my own thing so I moved there and my husband came with me!
SC.SD. Amazing! From an outsider’s perspective, you always hear negative things about the fashion industry; especially for young girls starting out as interns…. What was your experience like at the beginning and how did it prepare you for launching your own brand?
GS. I think because I’ve always known how to knit – on a machine and by hand – people knew that I knew what I was talking about. Very early on at rag & bone, I’d be involved in fittings, meetings, and I’d be the one telling the designers how things were made. Even though I was the same age as the interns, they were amazing at making people know I was an assistant and not an intern and giving me the opportunity to excel!
I remember having a meeting with one of the owners at rag & bone and was terrified. I was so quiet and had no confidence back then but I’d made a mock-up of this dress that we were knitting and he was like, “oh my god, you know how this is made? That’s amazing!” That made me realise, ‘oh yeh, I do know what I’m doing!’ I think it’s so easy when you start at the bottom to just stay quiet and get on with it but in America especially, you learn to shout for yourself just to be heard!
Within three months of being at Hugo Boss aged twenty-four, Genevieve was promoted to Creative Developer and Technical Production Lead, responsible for running the whole of the men’s sports knitwear range.
SC.SD. That’s genuinely incredible!
GS. Thank you! They gave us so many opportunities to learn and progress though! It took me all over the world, I visited so many factories and even though I was based in Switzerland, we were on the Italian border so they gave me Italian lessons too! A lot of the people I worked with would only speak Italian so you’d get there and have no idea what anyone was talking about!
When her Nan fell ill, Genevieve left Hugo Boss with ample industry experience and returned to the UK in *insert year*. With some money saved up, she bought her first machine (which retail between £1000 and £3000) and over the course of the next eighteen months, laid the foundations for what is now Genevieve Sweeney.
SC.SD. What made you realise that you were now ready to start work on launching your own brand?
GS. So it kind of started when I got that first machine because I then got my studio and very quickly started getting more machines. I was on GumTree and saw that an old gentleman in Scotland was selling his machine so I talked my husband into a little holiday up there to see some of the factories because I was genuinely interested in how they work!
Anyway, we went to meet this guy – his name is Joe – and ended up going to the pub with him! He was telling us all of these antics about his knitting life and mentioned that his nephew was a hand intarsia knitter and his wife did all the constructing of the garments! So I asked to meet his nephew, went to meet him, David, the next day and even though he was still doing odd jobs for different brands at the weekends, he said how he wanted to get back into it properly but didn’t know how!
It was at this point that Genevieve offered to create David a more modern design that he could show other labels to get more work.
GS. I ended up doing a couple more designs for him, a bit like a summer project really, and by the end of it I realised I had my collection forming! I was getting really passionate about it so then it was a case of, ‘who can put these jumpers together?’ so I ended up going up to Scotland a couple of times and talked a very lovely couple into constructing the garments and doing the finishing.
Knowing that those garments were bespoke and would therefore come at a higher price tag, Genevieve wanted to create a core staple range too as she was worried that the items with a higher price tag wouldn’t sell as easily.
SC.SD. What was your experience like finding a manufacturer for the staple range?
GS. It was so hard! Most people laughed me out the door or said it needed to be a five hundred piece minimum order which is crazy for a new brand. I was only funding it through my full-time job so I couldn’t afford that either.
I finally talked a factory into giving me a chance though but I think because I had a full time job with Lyle & Scott at the time, I think they hoped they’d get more work through me through that! It took a long time and I nearly gave up on it a couple of times because I’d reached a stage where I just thought, ‘there is no one who will say yes!’ One factory ended up completely screwing me over because they sold my designs too which didn’t help…
SC.SD. Oh my gosh!
GS. I know! It was so frustrating! Nowadays there are some amazing forums like Make it British so it’s a lot easier to connect with factories and I think factories have become for flexible too. They know that they won’t get five hundred piece orders anymore! People understand that the industry is changing; it’s not the eighties anymore where it was high volume or nothing.
SC.SD. You mentioned that you were preparing all of this alongside a fulltime job… How did you juggle your time back then and what made you realise you were ready to go full time with Genevieve Sweeney?
GS. It was basically a 9 to 5 at Lyle & Scott and then I’d work on my stuff in the evenings and weekends. My husband had also set up his own company too though so it was more like juggling three jobs which was completely knackering! My 9-5 was definitely suffering because of it. I’d go to bed at 3am and be back up for work at 6am so I wasn’t doing any job particularly well.
When I was getting closer to the launch, I decided to tell the brand I was working for what I was doing and find out whether they were ok with me doing it because if not I’d leave and they were like, “yeh you should probably go” so then I went full time with my line!
SC.SD. And how did that feel?!
GS. Quite scary at the time! Neither of us had a fulltime wage and there was still rent to pay at home and at the studio but I think it gave us that spirit and determination to go for it because no one else was going to pay it for us!
SC.SD. With the burden of rent and bills hanging over you, how confident were you that your items would sell and how did you prepare for the launch?
GS. Well initially, I’d planned for the business to just be online to keep the prices as affordable as possible even though it was a bespoke product but as I was preparing for the launch I was contacted by The Shop at Bluebird and they asked to buy the really expensive hand intarsia designs and have them in store so that elevated the price. I remember thinking that it would be amazing marketing so I was very quickly talked into going into wholesale before the launch which was crazy!
I’d applied for a Virgin Start Up loan which gave me money for production too so from April to August in 2015, I did a photo shoot, a video for the website and called in lots of favours from friends who were graphic designers and photographers which was amazing!
SC.SD. Friends are good like that! And what about actually getting your name out there? What was your approach to marketing?
GS. It took a while. I think it’s easy to expect people to know you’re there when you launch anything but I quickly had that realisation that I was just a drop in the ocean. I needed to build on the brand and make people know I was there.
I was living in Hackney at the time and there’s a shop called The Hackney Shop that’s free to use as a popup for a week. I signed up and ended up using it for a press launch which was a really amazing moment because it wasn’t just friends and family that turned up! I had press, there, bloggers, celebrities from Made in Chelsea… Just seeing my products in a shop and knowing that I had enough to fill a shop was crazy! That was a really important moment for me because everything came together within the last six months.
For that first month, I employed a PR company to help get some publicity as well because I didn’t think people would turn up! For the first year, I also just did as many events across the UK as I could to try and get my name out there. When you’re predominately based online, it’s always amazing to meet people in person and see how customers interact with the garments.
SC.SD. Let’s move on to the challenges…. What have you found to be the hardest part of running your own business both in terms of the day to day realities of being your own boss but also stand out, perhaps one-off low moments?
GS. Cash flow is such a bitch! For the first two years I did wholesale and I was so excited about being in stores but then the reality hit that you don’t get paid for 60 to 90 days after you’ve delivered. It could take six months to make something but I’d have to buy the yarn up front, pay the knitters up front and I ended up being out of cash for so long. I ended up having to borrow from family and friends and then pay them back but once you’ve done the whole cycle it’d be nearly a year before I got the money back.
Also with wholesale, you have my margins and then you have the shop margins and the RRP is huge which I thought was so unfair on the customer. Sometimes I’d be lucky to make a couple of pounds on a jumper which then felt crazy for six months’ work. I really struggled with that.
That’s when I had the realisation that wholesale, actually, isn’t for me but that felt like I was going against fashion and the market. It was such a hard decision to say to Fortnum and Mason, “sorry I can’t work for you anymore because it’s not right for my business.”
I guess brand awareness has been challenging too. Trying to get consumer confidence in me – especially when I first started – was hard because to go on to a website and then to buy from that website, customers have to be confident of the product and trust you. I’ve tried really hard to develop that through social media.
SC.SD. Was that a case of sharing more about you and your story?
GS. Exactly. In the product descriptions, in the videos, just talking about how everything is made and trying to get that story across. I’ve had times where I’ve been talking to someone and they’ve heard of the brand and I mention that intarsia is made by hand and they say, “is it?” so then I know I haven’t communicated it well enough! It was a case of going back, rewording it, re-evaluating it… it’s constant but it’s fun because you learn to play around with ways of communicating the same story!
SC.SD. And what about one-off low points… Has anything gone drastically wrong?
GS. When Brexit hit, the price of my yarn went through the roof and suddenly everyone in Italy that I was working with called in their invoices. I was paying so much more for the yarn that I ended up making a loss on the products going into the stores at the time because it ate into my margin. I remember calling up my friend in tears, saying, “I haven’t even started making it and I already know I’ve made a loss” which was so difficult. That probably reinforced the decision that I can’t do wholesale.
That was a real low and scary point though because you automatically find yourself in debt.
SC.SD. I can only imagine! How did that decision to opt out of wholesale impact your business?
GS. I guess the only silver lining from Brexit was that I started getting orders from America as it became more affordable for them. That made me realise I could be global as so many people from around the world love product provenance.
I obviously fulfilled the orders with stores that I’d already agreed to but then it was just a case of making people aware that the stuff they had in store would be it. I announced it on my website and in my newsletters and let people know that the changes would mean that prices would be reduced as a result. Then if people had to wait slightly longer I gave them discount coupons so they didn’t feel cheated at all!
Everyone was really supportive of it though. Maybe I’d got more confident online and with social media; it’s so powerful and you can reach the whole world so I felt fine announcing it. There was probably about two months of uh-ming and ah-ing though because I had Liberty’s contact me in that time asking to stock my accessories! It was a case of, ‘oh actually… do I want to do this?!’ but I stuck to my guns!
SC.SD. Which is incredible considering most companies dream about stocking in Liberty’s..!
GS. I know and it’s always been my dream too! I’d still love to do something with them one day; maybe when I’m bigger I could do an exclusive collection! It really was a hard decision and I also had friends in PR who were like, “this might not be a good idea” so I was definitely going against the grain but I’m happy I did it.
SC.SD. Gut instincts are rather helpful like that aren’t they?! What about standout moments that you’re proud of since launching?
GS. When I meet customers and hear their feedback about how much they love the pieces they wear and how it becomes a staple in their wardrobe is always an amazing moment!
I’m really proud of my sock subscription too though! I had quite a few customers say their goal for 2018 was to have a sock drawer solely made up of Genevieve Sweeney socks…
SC.SD. My sock drawer is just a random mismatch ankle socks from Primark so that’s the dream!
GS. Haha! Thank you! That feedback made me realise I could do a subscription though and it meant that I could have fun and do a very exclusive small line. I knew one customer would buy them and that thought alone made me happy but when I launched it that day, I had so many orders coming in! That was such an amazing moment for me because I obviously love them but knowing so many other people do too felt so special! I have to wear quite old clothes because the machines can be oily and dirty but if I’ve got a good pair of sparkly socks on, I’m happy!
SC.SD. I love that! What about all of the awards because you’ve obviously won your fair share?
GS. Last year I won an ‘exporting award’ one month after walking away from wholesale. It was at Cambridge University and I’m terrified of things like that but I talked about the effects of Brexit and that I was concentrating on the US and amazingly I won it! That really gave me the confidence that my changes to the business plan were taking me in the right direction so that felt amazing. Being part of Drapers ‘30 under 30’ felt amazing too!
SC.SD. I bet! It’s quite a cool title…
GS. I know! I was only under 30 for another two months so I just squeezed in!
Someone said I need to keep a note of all the little wins because it’s so easy to forget them so I’ve started doing that now! I also think you need to try and take some time to celebrate those moments, even if it’s just going to get a nice bottle of wine that evening! That’s definitely my tip now; celebrate the little moments because it’s so easy to just focus on the negatives.
SC.SD. How has launching and running this business impacted your personal life?
GS. If I’m being honest, I don’t really have balance. I live the business and because my husband and I share the studio, we tend to work until we need to. Having said that, for my 30th birthday, I got two kittens…
SC.SD. I saw on Instagram and they are just the cutest things!
GS. Aren’t they?! I’m so much better at planning my time now though because I have to go home at lunchtime to feed them and I want to be home in the evenings to see them. This is the first time in my life that I actually go home and don’t go on the laptop because even when I was working a full time job, I’d still freelance in the evenings!
SC.SD. I mean they’re genuinely extra cute kittens so I can see why! And in terms of your social life, has the business impacted that at all?
GS. I’ve definitely felt like I’ve been quite vacant at times from friends and family. I’ve missed christenings and birthdays because, I suppose, if I have a deadline or shit hits the fan, you have to just deal with it. Luckily I think they understand and hopefully it won’t be forever but it’s definitely impacted it. I probably go out once or twice a year and it’s usually to a wedding!
At the same time, I’ve made friends with other brands who are in the same situation and that’s helped. I think it’s hard for friends and family to understand what you’re going through sometimes. When you’re crying about the price of yarn going up or it’s stuck in customs, they don’t understand it fully but if someone has a loungewear or shoe business let’s say, they completely get it. I think it’s so important to have those people to outreach to and whine to!
SC.SD. Who do you turn to when you need advice for the business then?
GS. Luckily, I have a lot of friends who have their own businesses that aren’t necessarily in fashion. It’s not just the designing when you run a fashion brand. It’s the accounts, it’s the SEO, it’s the marketing so I call on about six different friends for help or to just chat it out I guess.
SC.SD. I ask everyone so do you have a favourite quote?
GS. My mentor, Kate Windebank, who I met through the Virgin Start Up told me, “To keep a note of all achievements and to celebrate the big or small wins” so that!
SC.SD. What about future plans… Can you see yourself running Genevieve Sweeney forever and if so, what does the future hold for your business?
GS. Definitely! My husband always says to me, “what’s your plan if it fails?” and I say, “it won’t!”
SC.SD. It really won’t!
GS. I hope so! I definitely believe that it can work, maybe that belief keeps me going but I’ve just launched a new collection with an amazing new photographer and I feel like I’ve finally brought together what I want the brand to look like.
GS. I want to grow the business online and branch out more to America and Australia.
I’m also passionate about teaching the next generation of knitters. That’s my goal to tackle next so I’ve been talking to Nottingham Trent about running apprenticeships and having interns here for a whole year. There’s also another university in Scotland that’s just opened that offers a more machine-based, technical course which is really exciting so hopefully, knitting will become glamorous again!
SC.SD. Your designs make it look glamorous if it’s any consolation!
GS. It’s things like the hand intarsia though! That’s cottage industry stuff so it’s literally someone in their front room with a machine and it’s a skill that takes years and years to learn. They’ve got to be comfortable inviting someone into their home so that’s where the struggle is!
SC.SD. “Bring your slippers love!”
GS. Exactly! That’s what I’m working towards at the moment though. It’s exciting because there’s so many possibilities and people are becoming more interested in how things are made. I just need to come up with a good campaign to rope more people in!
SC.SD. I have a feeling you’ll nail it! What do you think has been the biggest takeaway from your experience launching and running this business so far?
GS. Erm, I guess confidence and the realisation that you can put your knowledge into and troubleshoot so many things. I feel like I look at life differently now. I don’t feel pigeonholed and I find myself being creative when problems arise in day to day life too.
I don’t have the financial freedom or work life balance quite right yet but I feel like I could now be put into any situation and tackle it head on well!
SC.SD. I love that answer! It’s that ‘can-do’ mentality isn’t it? Last questions then… What does success look like to you and would you consider yourself to be successful now?
GS. Erm… I think I’m on a successful path?!
SC.SD. That’s good!
GS.Ok good! I guess I feel like I’m on route to success. I feel like the goal is near but success for me would be to have a business that can financially support itself, that can develop into new things, that helps to bring awareness to sustainability issues and British manufacturing in general and also is able to employ knitters back into the industry. That would make me feel successful! The business doing well but also having a positive impact on the environment in terms of the processes I use and the people I work with!
Between you and me I had to cut a number of “oh my gosh”’s from this interview because I found myself saying it every time Genevieve revealed that little bit more of her story.
(Note to self: Learn some new phrases to show you’re impressed Fi.)
But I’m hoping by now you can see why that was so.
From learning a new skill in the back of a car aged five and then honing it – sometimes in secret – over time to a level unheard of for her age; to going to impressive lengths to secure the best possible industry experience around the word that gave her a unique insight into the relationship between both designers and makers; the story behind Genevieve’s label is one of a kind that reveals itself seamlessly within her designs.
Yet once again – through the square eyes of Instagram – it would be easy to assume that she can now relax. The brand she has built speaks volumes and the orders keep coming. But as she so rightly says, it’s not just the designing and making that occupies her schedule but the exhaustive list of admin that manifests itself when you’re the one in charge.
Especially when you lead a team scattered around the country and you’re working on a plan to ensure that British knitwear design and manufacturing thrives for generations going forward.
But let’s be honest, if anyone out there is fit for the job, thirty-year old Genevieve Sweeney is she.
Heralded by the likes of Vogue, GQ, The Times and Cosmopolitan, she has inspired me to try and learn how to knit once again.
On Genevieve’s orders however, this time there will be wine involved.